Four weird and wonderful things about the world of charities

In this week's blog Joe Saxton looks at a big picture (as usual) and talks about interesting phenomena in the charity sector. 

Why do people give legacies to medical and animal charities, and lifeboats but not children or overseas charities?

It’s always been a puzzle to me who people give legacies to. Medical charities do very well (Cancer Research UK, Macmillan and BHF are all in the top five), and so do animal charities (notably RSPCA and PDSA). However, children’s and overseas development charities do far less well comparatively, so while Macmillan and RSPCA both get around £60 million in legacy income, NSPCC get around £25 million a year, and Oxfam around £20 million. Given that children are the third most popular cause among the public, and overseas charities raise huge amounts in public fundraising, why don’t people think about giving them money in their wills.

Equally puzzling is how well arts charities do in securing major donations but how they don’t do nearly as well comparatively in persuading people to leave them a legacy. And as for lifeboats and legacies where do I start?

 

Why are there so few charities who get involved in NHS delivery, compared to education?

It’s always intriguing how many different parts of our everyday life charities permeate into. So for example charities are in many aspects of the education system, as PTAs, as academies, as universities, as private schools, as student unions, as research bodies and so on. The housing sector is equally well stocked with housing associations and homelessness charities. So why does the NHS seem to be the exception to this rule? There are plenty of companies who are delivering services on behalf of the NHS, or instead of the NHS. So why aren’t there many charities who get involved in NHS delivery in the same way they do in education? I am not suggesting that they don’t exist, but they aren’t as well embedded or numerous or large. One of the largest groups of charities who deliver health care hospices sit alongside the NHS, rather than being embedded in it. What is it about the NHS vs the education system that creates such different levels of involvement by charities?

 

The way that trustees get put on a pedestal

It’s always amazing to me how people like to give trustees some special powers and put them on a pedestal: "They shouldn’t be paid. They do governance not management or operational issues." Some non-profit board specialists have even advocated that trustees should only talk to the CEO and no one else. This makes trustees seem like the High Council of Time Lords from Dr Who, with supreme powers and wisdom. My own experience and belief is that trustees are just the top tier in an organisational hierarchy, nothing more and nothing less. They need to talk to staff, they need to see how the organisation is working to make sure it is doing its job, and when things aren’t going according to the strategy they need to dive in and get their hands dirty.

 

The incredible diversity of charities

One of the reasons that charities make such a challenging sector is that they have a greater diversity than either the business or governance sectors. I don’t mean this by size or activities but by sources of income. So a charity can be almost exclusively funded by charitable donations, like RSPCA or Macmillan. Equally a charity can be almost exclusively funded by local or central government contracts as Turning Point is, and can be funded by returns from a portfolio of investments, like the Garfield Weston Foundation. It can also be a social business funded by income from trading activities such as a range of charity shops or selling training or services. This variety of income sources makes it that much harder to create a single set of needs for charities, as they are so different. This is one of the reasons we created a typology of charities in our report last year. It makes pulling together a plan for the charity sector, a civil society strategy, going forward that much harder.

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